Returning ‘favours’ – scenario

Tea and biscuits - image by Media Helping Media released via Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0
Tea and biscuits – image by Media Helping Media released via Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0

A young journalist is appointed as a parliamentary reporter for a public service broadcaster in a Western democracy.

He is assigned to cover a specific region of the country. His job is to get to know his area’s MPs (members of parliament) and to cover their activities.

Keen to make an impression, he draws up a list of all the politicians on his new patch. His region has several constituencies where the sitting MP is a senior government minister.

A national story breaks. The minister in charge of the department concerned is on the reporter’s list. The journalist makes contact.

The minister, a Secretary of State in the department at the centre of the story, invites the reporter round to his private rooms in the parliament building. He has, so far, been refusing to be interviewed on the topic.

They have a chat, the reporter explains that he has taken over the patch and that he wanted to get to know all his MPs.

The minister seems friendly. He offers the reporter a cup of tea. They appear to get on well. The MP’s assistant is hovering in the background.

Towards the end of the chat the reporter asks the politician whether he would agree to a short recorded interview on the developing story. He says yes.

An audio clip from the interview makes national news. After it is broadcast, the reporter’s boss praises him for his work; it’s a good start in the new job.

Three months later the minister’s assistant calls to tell the reporter that the minister has a story for him. The reporter is excited. It sounds like he could be in line for another scoop.

He’s invited to visit the MP’s office again. When he turns up he’s handed a piece of paper. He reads what seems like nothing more than a public relations plug for the minister; the reporter fails to see the story.

He questions whether there is anything newsworthy to report. The minister seems surprised, and replies that he had done him a favour with a quote three months earlier and now it’s his turn to return the favour and report what the minister wants.

The reporter had no idea that the minister would want to call in a favour after giving a quote.

The minister’s assistant talks to the reporter as he leaves and suggests that it might not be as easy for her to arrange a meeting in the future if the reporter fails to cover the story the minister wants publicised.

What should the reporter do?

a) Do the story the way the minister wants. The reporter will be covering the region for some time, and he does not want to fall out with one of the most senior politicians on his patch – doing so could mean that he will miss out on quotes in the future when he might need them.

b) Ignore the request, knowing that he is under no obligation to cover the story. He might have been naive in the way he approached the first meeting with the minister, but he didn’t do any deals to get the first interview.

The suggested approach

Political interviewing should never be a matter of returning assumed favours.

Journalists should never do deals to get information or interviews. There will always be a price to pay if they do.

In this case the journalist reported the matter to his line manager who also failed to see the news story in the issue the minister wanted to publicise. And, even if he had, it would have been wrong for the story to be covered on the understanding that it was because a favour was being returned.

Interestingly, deciding not to cover what was a PR stunt didn’t disadvantage the reporter when it came to requesting future interviews. The politician was clearly trying to exploit the situation.

Related training modules

How to interview politicians

The relationship between journalists and politicians

Integrity and journalism